Thursday, February 27, 2014

SLOUCHING TOWARD PHOENIX

Regarding the bill vetoed yesterday by Gov. Brewer of Arizona: The object of the bill was to protect religious people who object to same-sex weddings from being prosecuted by their refusal to provide goods or services for such weddings (florists, bakers and photographers have been to object of lawsuits in other states). 

Perhaps the bill was poorly crafted or ham-handed, but realize:

1. The reporting on the bill was blatantly false. "Anti-gay bill" was the way it was described. OK, then, I will call your objection, "Anti-faith." Sound fair? Media, be accurate. I know it's not what you were taught in your leftist school of journalism, but hey, let's try to be lifelong learners, OK?
2. The objective of the other side isn't to narrowly assure access to goods and services (flowers, cakes, and photography). It's to humiliate, impoverish and destroy all opposition to same-sex relationships. They know that evangelical Christians, pious Catholics and observant Jews are the main force that stands in the way. That bakery in Colorado was targeted specifically because the owner, Jack Phillips, is an outspoken evangelical Christian. The left sees people like Jack as the enemy. The immediate goal is to see to it that people like Jack are ostracized and humiliated. The intermediate goal is to see people like Jack prosecuted and impoverished. The long-term goal is to see people like Jack destroyed and eliminated. No, not by genocide, but by wearing them down--winning the way water wins the battle against the rock.

This all means two things:

1. Liberalism is dead; leftism reigns. Liberalism used to mean, "Do you own thing." To be "liberal" is to be free. The left has no use for freedom. They want conformity. You are not free to do, or think, what you want to do or think if the academic-social-political left does not agree.

2. Leftism tolerates no other gods. That includes any Biblical God. People of faith are an annoyance to the left; expect a gradual move to make what annoys them, bit by bit, illegal. No, they won't burn churches. First, sue people like Jack Phillips. Then sue churches for not doing same-sex weddings. Expect to lose those cases. And lose. And lose. But one day a friendly judge will be found, and then, churches all across America, bit by bit, will be sued. Pastors will go to jail for hate speech. 

Crazy, you say? Hey it was crazy talk just 15 years ago to talk about same-sex marriage. The center cannot hold...and we have loosed a rough beast upon the world.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity...

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(William Butler Yeats, 1919)

Monday, June 24, 2013



The Great Surprise
The Message of the Sermon on the Mount

Introduction

I remember as a brand new believer way back in 1970-something reading the Sermon on the Mount for the first time.  I thought it was weird!  People had been telling me all about God’s love and God’s grace and “God has a wonderful plan for your life” and all that, and here is this flagship message of Jesus in the first book of the New Testament, and it didn’t seem to fit with all I’d been told about Jesus. 

It started with all these blessings.  Then Jesus tells people that all the things they thought were so weren’t really so.  And everything He says is so seemed so much tougher than I expected.  Then he talks about being righteous, and I’d been told that we didn’t need to worry about being righteous—hey, that’s what forgiveness is for;  that’s what the cross is all about.  Nobody seemed to have told Jesus that!  He then talks about a narrow gate, and that seemed kind of narrow-minded.  Then He finishes with a story about building your house on the rock instead of on sand.

I was exhausted—and confused.  Just what does Jesus want us to do?

I’m not the only one.  I read an article on the history of the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount.  Some people say it’s such a high standard that it isn’t even meant for this age.  Or it’s meant to drive us to despair so we realize that we need the grace of God.  Or some see it as the lifestyle requirements of salvation—that’s it’s all the things we have to do to be saved.  (That view isn’t very popular these days, since it’s really hard, and it certainly doesn’t reconcile with the rest of what the Bible says.)  One article listed no less than twelve different ways to interpret the Sermon! 

The Sermon on the Mount has given birth to lots of books trying to figure it out.  A friend of mine, Steve Robbins wrote one of them: Transforming Habits.  The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one of the true classics of Christian devotion as a meditation on the Sermon on the Mount; it’s called The Cost of Discipleship.  Amazon.com has well over 100 books on the Sermon.  So this could get really complicated!

I’ve preached on parts of the Sermon on the Mount many times, but what I want to do is go through it quickly to get the Big Idea and the Big Ideas of it. 

And what is the Big Idea of the Sermon on the Mount?  It’s this:

Surprise!  God’s ways are so unlike what we expect.  His ways are more demanding, more liberating, more wonderful and more transforming than we ever imagined. 

Jesus is not giving us a religion in the Sermon.  He’s upending religion.  It’s really a kind of anti-religion.  It’s an announcement, not a set of rules.  It’s not what we would have ever made up on our own.

I think that when I read the Sermon for the first time when I was 14 or so—that the surprise reaction I had back then—was justified.  What I see here is a series of stunning surprises:
·          
     Surprising blessings
·         Surprising righteousness
·         Surprising contrasts
·         Surprising deeds
·         Surprising supply
·         Surprising living
·         Surprising wisdom  

What Jesus is saying in this message, the SOM is this: I’ve come into the world, and with My coming, this becomes clear--just about everything you thought about God and how He works and your relationship with Him is backwards.  The message isn’t “shape up”; it’s “be free!”

You really get this sense of surprise when you see how the sermon is framed by Matthew.  In Matthew 5:1-2, we read:

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:

Now add how it ends, Matthew 7:28-29:

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

At the beginning, we have two important details.  First, the place of the sermon is “on a mountainside.”  The language of the time used the same word for hill and mountain, so we’re looking at a hillside, and there is a place near Capernaum which fits the bill nicely and has been regarded as the site of the sermon.  By being on a “mountain”, Jesus is calling to mind Mount Sinai where God gave the 10 Commandments.  By sitting—well, that’s how a rabbi of the time taught.  He was asserting authority.

And at the end, that’s what had the attention of the people.  The Rabbis taught this way: they’d cite a passage of Scripture, and then say, “Well on this passage, Rabbi so and so says this, but Rabbi thus and such says this and Rabbi what’s his name says that.”  But Jesus just said, hey, here’s what I say.

Jesus was amazing.  He taught with total authority.  And what He said was amazing.  It was surprising.  It blew them away.

Surprising Blessings (Matthew 5:1-12)

So what did he say?  Well, He starts by announcing God’s blessings on people in situations that don’t seem too much like a blessed situation.  We have come to call these the Beatitudes (which just mean “blessings”), and each and every one is a surprise.  Here they are, Matthew 5:3-12:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Each blessing is directed toward the person who’s on the bottom, or is seen as weak or disadvantaged, or even being attacked for their faith. 

These are not so much encouragements to be a certain way as they are announcements from Jesus that God blesses those in these circumstances, already.  Jesus doesn’t day, “You will be blessed if you become poor in spirit.”  That’s a command, and it’s in the future.  The idea is more this: “Right now, believe or not, despite your circumstances and everything you’ve been told, you are blessed.  God has His eyes on you, and it’s OK.  The kingdom of God is available to you right now.”

That’s a surprise!  You see, the idea at the time of Jesus, and for a lot of people today, is that if you want to identify the people that God blesses, well, that’s easy.  Just look at the people with lots of money, good looks, power, a happy go lucky life, and you’ve found them.  There they are!

Don’t you sometimes wish you were like someone else?  Sometimes I wish I looked more like Brad Pitt.  My wife wishes I looked like Brad Pitt.  Instead I look more like a peach pit! 
I want you to think of the people in the crowd that day when Jesus said these words.  These words were like an electric shock.  These words were surprising, amazing, astonishing.  These are the blessed people?

By the way, what do we mean by “blessed”?  The Greek word Matthew uses here is makarios.  The Hebrew word that the Old Testament uses is berakah.  Both words carry the same idea: from “on top”, blessed means “favored by God”; from “the bottom” (where we experience the blessing), it means—get ready—“happy.”  “Blessed” is not some super-spiritual word that doesn’t connect with our lives.  A blessed person is a happy person.  Because God favors you, you’re happy.  Now the surprise is even stronger, isn’t it?  How can you be happy when you’re mourning, or persecuted, or all these other things?

So let’s go through the surprise blessings, briefly, to see the surprise:

#1: The poor in spirit (verse 3)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The poor in spirit are the people who have nothing.  Out of money, out of luck, out of time.  Nothing to offer, nothing going for them.  And Jesus says, you’re blessed.  It’s OK.  God makes up the difference.  God has this thing called grace that makes up the difference.  The kingdom of God is for you even when you have nothing—especially when you have nothing.

#2: The mourning (verse 4)

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

This means almost the same as “poor in spirit.”  People mourn because of loss.  It’s “I have nothing” plus “and I used to have something, or someone.”

Again, think of the crowd that day.  There were plenty of widows mourning.  Plenty of orphans mourning.  Plenty of people who used to have something or someone who didn’t anymore. 

These were the people that the religion of the time said that God had cursed them—that’s why they’re mourning.  But Jesus says, no, you’re blessed.  God will make it up to you.  He’ll comfort you.  You may have endured tragedy, you may have endured hard times, but God has not forsaken you.  You are blessed and will be comforted.

#3: The meek (verse 5)

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

First thing: the meek are not the weak.  The Greek word here is praus which is used for a wild horse which has been trained.  He has been “broken”, not crippled.  His strength has been brought under control. 

But the meek—let’s face it—the meek are seen as on the bottom.  Kings and emperors and captains of industry aren’t thought of as “meek.”  No one would ever call Donald Trump meek.  They are the people who run the world.  They “inherit the earth.”

No, says Jesus.  They don’t inherit the earth—you do, you meek people.  They are pretenders, imposters, occupiers, but you, you who trust God, in the final analysis, you receive the land, the earth, your security as a gift from God.  Maybe not even in this life, but the time will come.  You are blessed ones, not the swaggering, goose-stepping tyrants of this world.

#4: The hungry and thirsty (6)    

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Again, you have to get into the lives of the people right there listening to Jesus.  Think there were hungry people there?  Thirsty people?  Sure.  So he has their attention and adds a twist: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  If your spirit churns like you stomach does for being right with God, but you feel like you’re nobody, like you have nothing to commend your soul to God, take heart!  God sees that and He blesses you, and your spiritual hunger and thirst will be filled.  Take heart!

#5: The merciful (verse 7)

 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.         

In Jesus’ day, mercy wasn’t held up as a virtue the way it is today.  To show mercy was to show weakness.  The rulers and the powerful weren’t especially merciful.  Jesus says though, that God sees and blesses those who—like God—are inclined to show mercy.  We’ve seen grace in the background in a few of these blessings already, so we shouldn’t be surprised when God says, hey when you show grace in action (mercy) to others, be assured that God likes that and when you stand before God, you’ll experience that same mercy.

#6: The pure of heart (verse 8)

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”  Well, that may be so, but again, think of the people there listening.  They’ve been told that if you want to see God, there are 613 mitzvoth (or commandments) that you needed to master: 365 negative commands and 248 positive commandments.  That’s the pathway to see God, to know Him now and to be with Him forever.  Pray that your obedience to these outweigh your disobedience, and you just may make it.

But Jesus says, look, if you have a heart that’s fixed on God, that loves God, and that earnestly desires God and His kingdom rule, and that loves others as well, the door is open.  You who are confused and struggling and unsure, and are acutely aware of your limitations and even your sins, you’re blessed; be at peace; the door is wide open: you will see God. 

#7: The peacemakers (verse 9)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Do you know who they called “sons of God” in Jesus’ day?  The powerful, especially rulers like Caesar or Herod.  These were war-makers, not peacemakers.

Psalm 120:6-7 says,

Too long have I lived
    among those who hate peace.
 I am a man of peace;
    but when I speak, they are for war.

Common people rarely want war.  The world rewards the powerful war-makers with titles like “the great” or “the magnificent” or even “son of God”; Jesus says to that common person who wants no honors, no conquests, and says, “Let’s make peace instead” and says, you, yes you, God will honor as His sons and daughters, not those people. 

#8: The persecuted (verses 10-12)

This last one is a little different.  Jesus follows a blessing formula from vs. 3-10, but this last one has the formula blessing and then Jesus expands on the meaning of the blessings in vs. 11-12. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Here’s where Jesus seems to be speaking both to the people right in front of Him, and is also speaking about what would come later on, when the church began to be persecuted. 
Again, start with the people there.  Are you hassled for speaking up for God?  Take heart—God sees that, and you are the people of God’s kingdom.  Your present circumstances aren’t signs of God’s curse—they are signs of God’s blessing!

Looking ahead, Jesus says that when you are persecuted because of Him—because you are 
identified as a follower of the crucified and risen Jesus, not only are you blessed by God, rejoice!  This means that you are following in the footsteps of the prophets of old (who were often persecuted as well) and you’re banking rewards in heaven!  You may have nothing here, but, good news, you’ll have much there! 

The beatitudes are framed by references to the kingdom of God (in verses 3 and 10).  Back in Matthew 4:7, at the very outset of Jesus’ preaching/teaching ministry, we read,

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

These blessings are not about, “Do this, and God will bless you.”  It’s more like, “Good news.  God sees where you are now—poor, needy, powerless even persecuted—and He blesses you as you are.”  He has turned the world upside down.  The world does not belong to the rich, the carefree, the powerful, the satisfied; to the masters of their destiny; to the one who bends the world to their will; that’s a lie.  When you turn the world upside down, then you begin to see the kingdom of God.  The world belongs to God, and He gives it as an inheritance to those who love Him.

That’s amazing.  That’s a surprise.  These are surprise blessings. 

The best way to understand how these blessings work, how real they are, rich, how rewarding, is to see them in action, in real life. Author Philip Yancey tells the story of the late Henri Nouwen, who passed away in 1996.    

Blessed are the merciful. I learned the truth of this Beatitude from Henri Nouwen, a priest who used to teach at Harvard University. At the height of his career, Nouwen moved from Harvard to a community called Daybreak, near Toronto, in order to take on the demanding chores required by his friendship with a man named Adam. Nouwen now ministers not to the intellectuals but to a young man who is considered by many a useless person who should have been aborted.

Nouwen describes his friend: “Adam is a 25-year-old man who cannot speak, cannot dress or undress himself, cannot walk alone, cannot eat without much help. He does not cry or laugh. Only occasionally does he make eye contact. His back is distorted. His arm and leg movements are twisted. He suffers from severe epilepsy and, despite heavy medication, sees few days without grand-mal seizures. Sometimes, as he grows suddenly rigid, he utters a howling groan. On a few occasions I’ve seen one big tear roll down his cheek.

“It takes me about an hour and a half to wake Adam up, give him his medication, carry him to his bath, wash him, shave him, clean his teeth, dress him, walk him to the kitchen, give him his breakfast, put him in his wheelchair and bring him to the place where he spends most of his day with therapeutic exercises.”

On a visit to Nouwen in Toronto, I watched him perform that routine with Adam, and I must admit I had a fleeting [thought] as to whether this was the best use of his time. I have heard Henri Nouwen speak, and have read many of his books. He has much to offer. Could not someone else take over the menial task of caring for Adam? When I cautiously broached the subject with Nouwen himself, he informed me that I had completely misinterpreted what was going on. “I am not giving up anything,” he insisted. “It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”

Then Nouwen began listing for me all the benefits he has gained. The hours spent with Adam, he said, have given him an inner peace so fulfilling that it makes most of his other, more high-minded tasks seem boring and superficial by contrast. Early on, as he sat beside that helpless child-man, he realized how marked with rivalry and competition, how obsessive, was his drive for success in academia and Christian ministry…

All during the rest of our interview, Henri Nouwen circled back to my question, as if he could not believe I could ask such a thing. He kept thinking of other ways he had benefited from his relationship with Adam. Truly, he was enjoying a new kind of spiritual peace, acquired not within the stately quadrangles of Harvard, but by the bedside of incontinent Adam.  I left [there] convicted of my own spiritual poverty, I who so carefully arrange my writer’s life to make it efficient and single-focused. The merciful are indeed blessed, I learned, for they will be shown mercy.

Good news.  God sees where you are, what you’re doing, what you have and don’t have and says, you, yes you, you are blessed.  This is wonderful, so wonderful; it is beyond our imagination.  God is so good.

Surprising Righteousness (Matthew 5:13-20)

What does it mean to be “righteous”?  When I was a kid (a little kid!), there was a popular singing duet: Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, better known as The Righteous Brothers.  You know them for songs like “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” and “Unchained Melody” (you know, that song from the movie Ghost).  

The story is that they got their name when performing in Los Angeles as part of another group.  When they finished their duet, a US Marine in the audience shouted, “That was righteous, brothers!”

Righteous?  In case you haven’t heard it, sometimes “righteous” means really cool.  As it, “Chuck Norris is righteous, man!” 

In the Bible “righteous” basically means “right with God.”  But it means more than that.  It’s not just a legal relationship—“right with God”—it also implies a way of living.  People are called to live in righteousness.  Godward, that means to live with faith in God and love for God; toward other people that means to live with mercy, fairness and genuine concern for others: that’s righteous living.  The classic Old Testament text that expresses this is Micah 7:8:

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

Unfortunately, the beautiful simplicity of this teaching ground to almost a halt by the time of Jesus.  What God intended as a living relationship gradually degenerated into an ugly thing—something we call a religion.

The Jesus way is a kind of anti-religion.  Religion loves to create a complex system of rules and regulations.  And religion is run by the rule makers, who gain power by their knowledge of all those rules and regulations.  If you’re a Pharisee of any era, you have power over other people’s lives because you are there to say, “This is right and that is wrong; I am right and you are wrong.  And you had better shape up.” 

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives his description of a different way to live.  It’s a God-filled way of living, and it catches everyone by surprise.  It starts with surprise blessings.  What people thought was far away—God’s love, God’s blessings, God’s presence, God’s power—was declared to be near. 

The opening blessings are not so much calls to live in a new way as they are announcements to people of humble faith that God sees them, loves them, and that the kingdom of God is open to them right now.  It’s not a call to shape up, get your act together, do this and that; it’s a foghorn of grace in the hazy mist of legalism.  It is wonderful, amazing, good news. 

And that carries over into the surprise righteousness of this next portion, Matthew 5:13-20.  Here Jesus brings some of the same good news into understanding righteousness and then really surprises us on what righteousness is.    

If I had to sum up this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, I’d say this: You are salt, you are light; now be salt…be light…be righteous, and that is the best kind of righteousness.  That so far surpasses any other kind of righteousness. 

What He does is declare you are salt; you are light.  When you trust God, that’s what you are; but be careful; don’t let the salt go sour; don’t let the light go out; that is the true righteousness that surpasses any legalistic notion of righteousness. 

Here’s the passage:

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

When you are the kind of God-directed, God-loving, God-believing, God-trusting, God-desiring people that Jesus describes in the beatitudes, you are salt and you are light.  These are symbols that brim over with the idea of true living righteousness. 

You are the salt of the earth.  What does that mean?  Salt has to do with preservation and transformation.  You are the light of the world.  Light has to do with knowledge, illumination and wisdom.  Righteous people will do both: they preserve or transform their moral environment, and they bring the knowledge of God, the wisdom of God, the good news of God into their environment.

Now, the Pharisees would have told you that they do that.  But Jesus didn’t call them the salt and the light.  Why?  Because they thought being salt and light was being purity enforcers and knowledge dispensers.  The truly righteous simply are salt and light; they don’t dispense salt and light.  The Pharisees threw salt in people’s eyes and then shined flashlights into people’s faces.  There was nothing natural about the way of righteousness of the Pharisees.  We’re not talking about something that could be sensed from their character or their way of life.  Their righteousness was lodged in their rule-keeping. 

And that’s why Jesus can say to the salt and light people, hey, your righteousness has to surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. 

I sometimes think of it like this: the Pharisees had a coat of spray paint on, and the color is Old Testament law.  Looks pretty good, but it’s just a layer of spray paint.  It’s just millimeters think. 

Salt and light people have really changed lives.  The love of God has really gotten deep into their lives.  They hunger and thirst for righteousness.  The love of God for them is like the air they breathe: it’s all encompassing, all surrounding.  It’s life to them.  It fills life with the weight of glory but does not burden them the way law-keeping burdens the Pharisee.  It’s God Himself they seek, not another mitzvah (commandment) to do. 

This way doesn’t abolish the law; it fulfills it.  It doesn’t torture the text of the law to find ways to get around it; it practices and teaches the commandments in ways the Pharisees could scarcely imagine or even understand. 

So, Jesus says, people of God—you are salt and light; that is who you are.  But He warns there are ways to lose your saltiness and there are ways you can hide your light.  If you are righteous (in the way Jesus means), this is who you are.  But we have to take steps to live out that righteousness.  Let’s explore that.

First, He warns that salt can lose its saltiness, and then it’s not worth anything.  What is salt for?  Historically, in Jesus’ time the main use of salt was as a preservative.  It was used for flavor.  It was used to cleanse and disinfect. 

What salt does, in a word, is that it has a positive impact on its environment.  The presence of salt makes things better.  Very simply, Jesus is saying that His people have a call: wherever you are, you make things better.

The way that we do that is through Christ-like character expressed through Christ-like deeds.  Here’s a simple way to think of this: let’s use the “fruit of the Spirit” list from Galatians 5:22-23a:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.     

When you’re being a “righteous salt person”, you’re bringing love into your environment—whether that environment is a marriage, a family, a place of work, a school.  You’re bringing joy there.  You’re a source of peace there, and of kindness and goodness.  You’re faithful: people know they can rely on you.  You’re gentle: people don’t worry that they’re going to say something and that you’ll go off on them like a landmine.  You have self-control.  That’s salt-righteous living.  You preserve and transform you’re environment by your presence. 

But Jesus warns us, “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”   If salt becomes too diluted, it becomes worthless for the job of preservation and transformation.  In Jesus’ time, diluted salt was used to harden the soil for paths in fields.  That’s a pretty lowly come-down for salt.  I don’t think we should over-symbolize this except to say, it’s far too easy for us to go from being used by God to preserve or transform an environment to being just almost useless.  And the difference from one to another is almost always seen in not expressing the fruit of the Spirit.

One mean word, one unkind act, and you can blow your testimony.  In a work environment, if people know you’re a Christian by the Bible on your desk and then you blow your stack, it can take years to get your credibility back—if ever.  In a community, if there’s a sex scandal or an embezzlement at a church, it drags down the witness of the every church in that community.  And in the whole culture, if the church of Jesus is better known for what it’s against (say abortion or same-sex marriage) than what it’s for, then there’s a problem.

No, we don’t change what we believe, but we make every effort to lead with what is salt.  That’s true for us as individuals as well as for us as churches.  For example, I know of a church in one county that has made it their mission to see every child in foster care in their county adopted into loving homes.  To see that happen, they are working with other solid churches in the county.  They now have the reputation as being the church that loves foster kids.  That’s being salt.

So the surpassing righteousness of Jesus and His people is like salt: preserving or transforming our environment.  Here’s another aspect that Jesus tells us of: the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16):
 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

Light has to do with knowledge, illumination and wisdom.  Righteous people will do both: they preserve or transform their moral environment, and they bring the knowledge of God, the wisdom of God into their environment.

In the Old Testament, light so often has to do with the word of God, as in Psalm 119:105:
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.

The light is the truth of God; when that gets written down, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we get the word of God.  What Jesus is saying is that the truly righteous are those who individually and collectively show what God is like: what His love and redemption looks like.  If we over-simplify a little bit, “salt” has to do with character, and “light” has to do with witness or the words we say that point people to God.

I recently read Word versus Deeds: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance by Duane Litfin, former president of Wheaton College.  He points out, very well, and very Biblically, that you can’t have deeds without words, and you can’t have words with no deeds.  You need salt (character and deeds) and you need light (words).  You need Christ-honoring deeds and Christ-honoring words.  You really can’t preach the gospel with you deeds, but you can be salt.  You can create an opening for the gospel with salt (deeds) and then you actually share the gospel in the words that point to Jesus, to the bloody cross and the empty tomb that sets people free.

You are the light of the world: that’s our identity.  That’s who we are.  But it’s easy, again, to back off from who we are.  Light can be seen, and it enables truth to be seen.  Ever stay in an unfamiliar room overnight, and you just about break your leg if you have to get up in the night?  That’s the world without the gospel.  That’s your friends and family members without Jesus.  They are trying to get through life without light.  No wonder the story of their life is one busted shin after another. 

A city set on a hill: many Bible scholars think that Jesus had his adopted hometown of Nazareth in mind.  Nazareth is set on a hill, and from the modern Israel Route 65, you can see Nazareth from miles away.  Jesus says, hey, that’s you.  People should be able to see the light that comes from you from a mile away.  A lamp on a lamp stand: in the simple homes of Jews in Jesus’ time, people would make a notch on the wall or on a support beam to place a simple olive oil lamp.  If you could afford it, you’d also buy a little piece of shiny metal to set behind the lamp to act as a mirror to increase the light from the lamp.  Jesus says, don’t hide the light of God under a bowl; that doesn’t make sense. 

We have truth that the world desperately needs to know.  This is part of righteous living as much as the deeds implied by being the salt of the earth is part of righteous living.  Deeds and word, salt and light, they march hand in hand, and it’s in deeds and word that the 
righteous life is lived. 

What words?  Do not be ashamed to name the name of Jesus, people.  In Romans 1:16, Paul expresses the same:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.          

That’s being the light of the world. 

Soon Ok Lee was a prisoner in North Korea.  She was a committed communist, but went to prison because she would not break the rules to provide extra clothing to a party official.  She spent five years in prison, enduring torture and humiliation for that “crime.”  She was not a Christian, but observed Christian prisoners there.  In prison, Christians were known as “superstition believers.”  Because of their belief in heaven, they were never allowed to look up during their confinement, and were forced to keep their eyes to the ground.  “Once a month, the believers were placed in the yard in front of all the prisoners and asked to deny their faith,” she writes.  “Since they would not deny their faith, they were given the most difficult work assignments such as cleaning the toilets and removing human excrement.”

One day she witnessed six Christian prisoners transferring over a ton of human excrement from the toilets to a large tank.  It was the monsoon season, and these prisoners were working in the pouring rain.

A woman named Ok Dan Lee climbed up on the tank to open it, but slipped on the slick surface and fell into the tank.

“Sister, can you come out?” one of her friends shouted to her.

“I’m having a hard time,” she gasped, as she struggled to keep her head above the waste.

“Let me come up and help,” her friend said. An officer tried to stop her, but she climbed up the tank and jumped in to save her friend.  Then another woman climbed up the tank and then another.

“In all, four women jumped into the tank to help their friends,” Lee recalls.  “Each of them tried to push the others up first.”  But they were trapped, so the officer below ordered the tank door be shut, cruelly sealing their fate.  “The door was closed and the women were left in the tank.  No one ever tried to take the bodies out.”

The actions of these women left Lee searching for answers.  “When I saw their love, it raised questions in my mind that I could not erase,” she writes.  “How could they die for someone else?  What was it about heaven that was worth the cost?”

Lee saw more evidence the Christians received greater abuse than other prisoners, yet she was struck by their attitude.  “In some instances while believers were being beaten, they would stand up halfway and begin to sing hymns and say ‘Amen.’  The guards thought they were crazy and took them back to the electric torture room.  I never saw any of the believers return from that room.”

“They did not only not falsely accuse others, but were willing to take the blame for another.  They even died for other prisoners.”

On one occasion she saw the warden launch into a tirade because a Christian would not deny his faith.  His fury was so intense Lee thought it looked like “he had been taking drugs to make him high.”  He began to stomp on the Christian, reminding the other prisoners, 

“This is going to happen to you if you ever believe in heaven.”

Then the warden ordered all 6,000 prisoners in the camp to walk over the body of the Christian.  “It was unimaginable how he died.”

Several years later, after Lee was released and then escaped to South Korea, someone gave her a Bible, brought her to church and she made Jesus her Lord.  She had been exposed to the salt and to the light, to deeds and words that she would not deny.  That, people, is the true righteousness that surpasses that of any system of law.  That is our call.  That is our privilege.  That is our joy and glory.

Surprising Contrasts (Matthew 5:21-48)

The late Dallas Willard said something incredibly wise about the Sermon on the Mount.  Dallas loved the Lord, and he was a profound thinker about living the Jesus following life, but his day job was being a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California.  As a philosophy professor, he had a unique set of glasses by which he saw things, and he pointed out that every major philosopher at some time has to address the question—what is the good life?  From Socrates to Karl Marx, if you are any kind of philosopher, you have answer the question, hey, given the realities of human nature and the realities of life, what’s the best way to live?

And what Dallas Willard says is that the Sermon on the Mount is, among other things, Jesus’ longest and most sustained answer to the question, what does the good life look like?  It’s easy to miss that.  After all, he addresses things like persecution, and that doesn’t seem like the good life, does it?  But remember, the good life is the best life you can live given the realities of life and of the world.  It isn’t about the perfect life—it’s about the good life.  This is a world where those who follow Jesus are often despised.  It’s also a world—and this is a big piece of the pie in understanding the Sermon—where people are being ground down by religion; where the misuse and misapplication of the faith taught in the Old Testament was making life miserable instead of making their lives joyful and liberating.

So, in the Beatitudes, the blessings that start the Sermon, Jesus says to the people, hey, I know you’ve been told that you’re far from God’s kingdom, but the good news is that you’re not far; you’re close.  All these things that people think of as markers of God’s disfavor—being poor, or in mourning, or humble, or hungry or thirsty—all these marks of being down and out do not, do not, mean that God isn’t near to you; good news; you are the blessed ones!  He is near!

Then He tackles righteousness and He says that real righteous living is being salt and light, not being the superficial rule keepers that the Pharisees are. 

Now we’re looking at a series of surprising contrasts in Matthew 5:21-48.  This section is distinct because of the formula Jesus uses throughout: “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”  He does that six times.  Each time He is responding to a distortion of Biblical truth.  Also, each time, Jesus insists on digging deeper—of going underground in our lives.  Each distortion of Biblical truth is based on going skin deep.  Each correction by Jesus is based on going to the heart.

You see, Jesus’ target in this section is bad religion.  And one of the things that can keep you far from God is bad religion.  Just consider how much of Jesus’ teaching has to do with bad religion.  It wasn’t the tax gatherers and thieves who conspired to crucify Jesus.  It was the keepers of bad religion.

We need to guard our hearts from bad religion.  And be careful how you think of that.  If you start getting proud that you’re not like a Pharisee, that’s the very thing that can sink you. 

You see, not only is Jesus saying that bad religion can sink you; He’s also saying that the good life is found in a truly transformed heart.  He isn’t interested in just regulating our behavior; He’s most interested in changing the person we are deep down inside.  And that is possible!  We need the rest of Scripture to understand this, but what we need to know is that a real follower of Christ has the Spirit of God living in him or her, enabling you to have truly changed affections and interests so that what Jesus does in a person is from the inside out, not the outside in.

So keep that in mind as we look at six surprising contrasts where Jesus corrects a bad religion based misunderstanding of life and faith.  The six areas He addresses are:

·         Anger and murder
·         Lust and adultery
·         Casual divorce and sexual immorality
·         Oaths and swearing
·         Retaliation and non-resistance
·         Love and hate

Anger and Murder (Matthew 5:21-26)

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

In this passage, Jesus is referring to furious anger, not just a mild annoyance.  And He says that in the sight of God, in terms of sin against God and the sin that rips up our own soul, that furious anger is the moral equivalent of murder. 

There was a one-panel comic strip called “They’ll Do it Every Time” that ran for years—it ceased publication in 2008—about the everyday frustrations of life.  When someone got mad, this little box appeared over people’s heads with the words “Urge to Kill” in it.   That’s the kind of thing Jesus is talking about.  That anger is the root of evil deeds, and has to be taken seriously as the moral equivalence of the actual deed of murder.

Jesus’ alternative is that when you are in a conflict situation, pursue reconciliation with great vigor, because unresolved conflict makes it hard to worship and because this kind of conflict is like a prison.  If you even know that the other guy is mad at you, and you’re not mad at them, stop what you’re doing and “go and be reconciled with your brother.”  Jesus says it’s like settling out of court—if it’s not taken care of, you might as well be in prison.

Lust and adultery (Matthew 5:27-30)

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Again, Jesus goes to the heart.  Is it enough just to avoid the act of adultery?  Jesus says, no, a heart of lust is the root of and the moral equivalence of adultery.  The good life isn’t just avoiding wrongdoing; it’s found in a re-oriented heart, away from wrongdoing, in this case, sexual wrongdoing. 

What do we make of the gouged eye/cut off hand words here?  I like what Thomas Constable says here: take this literally, and you have Jesus commanding the crippling of the whole human race!  No, this is what we call hyperbole, where you overstate something to make your point, which is, hey, if you’re caught in lust, don’t just stand there—do something!  Run, flee, turn of the TV or the computer, do something!  The heart is the battleground, not just your external deeds.

This leads us to the next contrast…

Casual divorce and sexual immorality (Matthew 5:31-32)  

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

OK, let’s all admit: it’s hard to talk about divorce today without bumping into the lives of an awful lot of people.  But let’s read what Jesus says here in the context of His time.  What Jesus is talking about here is a religiously sanctioned casual approach to divorce.  The quote is directly from Deuteronomy 24, but Jesus says that the Law of Moses allowing for divorce doesn’t make it good or desirable.  As a matter of fact, that kind of casual approach to divorce is wrong on two counts.  First, it sanctions adultery.  If you dump spouse A so you can marry spouse B because he or she is “hot”—that’s just dressing up your adultery. 

And—go a little deeper here—this is addressed to men.  This is a culture that was often guilty of treating women as property.  Bad cook?  Gaining weight?  Won’t let you watch Sports Center?  Dump her!  You can do better. 

Hey, just because you can put a ring on it doesn’t make right what you did to the person you left behind.  (I’ve heard this called serial polygamy!)  You know, in certain branches of Islam, you can contract a temporary marriage—for as short as an hour!  Doesn’t take much imagination to know what that’s for!

Oaths and swearing (Matthew 5:33-37)

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

The Old Testament condemns breaking oaths and swearing.  Jesus quotes one passage that does this, from Leviticus 19.  But in Jesus’ time, a whole complex system of what oaths were OK and what oaths were not OK—what we call swearing—had developed.  For example, the rabbis taught that swearing by God’s name was binding, but swearing by heaven and earth was not binding. Swearing toward Jerusalem was binding, but swearing by Jerusalem was not. 

Jesus says…that’s nuts.  (Layne’s paraphrase.)  No more “swear to God”, no more OMG.  Stop using God’s name to shore up your credibility.  Be the kind of person who doesn’t need OMGs to make a point.  Be the kind of person whose word is as good as gold.  Be the kind of person in whom God’s trustworthiness can be seen without having to use His name in vain to make a point.

Now, I just used a phrase you probably recognized: “use His name in vain.”  That’s from Exodus 20:7, which is commandment number three of the Ten Commandments.  And all these surprising contrasts relate to the Big Ten: murder, adultery, misuse of God’s name.  So what’s next?

Retaliation and Non-Resistance (Matthew 5:38-42)

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
OK, is Jesus saying that the word of God in the Old Testament is wrong?  After all, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” is straight from Exodus 21:24.  No; what we have here it’s a question of misapplication.  “Eye for an eye” was a way of limiting retaliation.  So if your eye is put out in a fight, you can’t blind the other guy!  If you lose a tooth in a robbery, you can’t knock all the other guy’s teeth out—get it?  Also, the Law of Moses didn’t care what your social status is.  In the ancient world, if you were “upper class” and someone from the common people did something to you, you had the right to exact more than equal from them.   

The Jews tended to view the law of retaliation as God’s permission to take vengeance. That was never God’s intention.  As a matter of fact, hear what Leviticus 19:18 says:
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.    

The opposite of revenge is love of neighbor—such a major them of Jesus’ teaching.  And love of neighbor is what commandments 5-10 of the Ten Commandments are about. 
To carry out the love commandment, Jesus gives us a truly surprising teaching: Don’t resist the evil person.  If he whacks you on one check, turn the other check toward him.  If he wants your tunic (the long shirt worn next to the skin) give him your cloak (the outer garment that kept you warm).  If a Roman soldier makes you carry his stuff for a mile (which they could under Roman law), carry it two.  If someone wants something from you, to borrow it, lend it.

This was something new.  All these involve shame, and the culture of the time was very much an honor and shame culture. 

Does what Jesus teach here mean that we can never defend ourselves?  Dear friends in non-resistant churches like the Church of the Brethren take it that way, and I respect their position—but also respectfully disagree.  The point is not to become a doormat.  The point is meeting hatred with love instead of hatred.  The Pharisees found a way to religiously sanction hate.  Jesus says instead that even—and especially—personal mistreatment should be met with love. 

Do I need to say it?  Isn’t this exactly what Jesus Himself did when He faced the cross?  He was struck, stripped, forced to march under a Roman cross and gave His all.  And He says to us—come and follow Me.

And that leads to one more contrast:

Love and Hate (Matthew 5:43-48)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This follows right on from the last one, doesn’t it?  This time, Jesus is reacting to a mixture of what the Scripture says and what people thought it ought to say: it does say love your neighbor—we just saw that in Leviticus 19:18.  But it doesn’t say “hate your enemy.”  That just seemed like a “reasonable add-on” to a lot of the rabbis.  The reasoning goes like this: My neighbor is my fellow Israelite.  I am to love him.  But what about non-Jews?  They are not God’s people.  God’s disfavor and rejection abides on the Gentiles.  As God has rejected them, so do I; I hate Gentiles!

But Jesus says, when it comes to enemies, love them!  Pray for them!  Greet them!  You who despise Gentiles, even those pagan Gentiles know this and do this! 

On what basis does Jesus say this?  This one: even your enemies are your neighbors.  Jesus would go on, in the parable of the good Samaritan, to radically redefine who our neighbor is—namely anyone we encounter who is in need. 

This is the good life.  The good life is the life that’s lived from the heart.  It is not superficial; it cannot be achieved by just keeping certain rules. 

Matthew 5:48 finishes this section and sums up not just the section on love and hate, but all the surprising contrasts:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And let me tell you, understanding this verse is important.  Some take this to mean that you really have to be PERFECT!  (So, straighten up!)  Others take it to mean Jesus really means to—as one commentator put it—to drive us to despair by the impossibility of living by His commands that we’ll be driven toward the grace of God.

But there’s a much simpler way of understanding what Jesus means here, and after what we’ve been seeing here, it will make perfect sense to you.  Part of the meaning of “perfect” in the Bible is simply, “mature” or “complete.”  God is perfectly complete; our kind of maturity or completion isn’t like that, but if Jesus really is addressing “the good life”—isn’t this it?  It’s a life that is more than just not doing evil, but activity doing—and being—good. 

It pursues reconciliation—not anger.  It purses purity—not lust.  It doesn’t look for “escape clauses” to justify sins of the flesh or misusing God’s name.  It dumps revenge in favor of love, even sacrificial, painful love.  Most important, it is life lived from a redeemed, transformed heart.  No spray paint religion here.  No bad religion.  No misuse of faith to somehow sanctify my selfishness, lust, greed or hatred.  This is the real deal: the life of Jesus being lived through me into the rough and tumble of a real and often harsh world.

In 1889, a great fire destroyed 31 blocks in downtown Seattle.  The city fathers decided to deal with the problem of fire, all new buildings had to be made of brick, and to deal with frequent flooding downtown, to seal off the first level of buildings and move ground level up 10 feet.  For over seven decades, the first level of downtown Seattle was sealed off.  Today you can take a tour of Underground Seattle.  You might say that Underground Seattle is the real Seattle. 

Jesus tells us that the good life, the God-blessed, God-filled, shalom-blessed life, is not won above ground, but underground—in the heart—the true person.  This life is available to you and to me right now.  Come, follow Him…and be free.

Surprising Deeds (Matthew 6:1-18)

There’s an Australian historian—and a very good Christian apologist—named John Dickson (YouTube him—he’s a fine speaker).  He has a great little book on leadership called Humilitas (the Latin word for humility).  He looks at humility from the standpoint of a historian, and shows that throughout history, the very most effective leaders showed humility, which he defines as “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.”

One of the things that he points out is that while this may sound like common sense to you and me, it wasn’t always so.  There was a time when humility was almost seen as a vice.  For example, there was a Jewish sage named Yeshua ben Sira in the second century BC who advised, “Humble your head before the great.  Incline your ear to the poor and return their greeting in humility.”  Sounds good.  But when his grandson translated this into Greek, he changed the last word…from “return their greeting in humility” to “return their greeting in gentleness.”  You see, in the world of the Greeks and the Romans, humility was almost a vice or a certainly a weakness.  Humility is for underlings and slaves, not for people of achievement. 

Dickson cites the short autobiography of the Roman Emperor Augustus, which is one long brag fest.  “I built this, I defeated those bad guys, I instituted this law…I…I…I.”  And this was OK in that society.  They even had a name for it: philotemia: the love of honor.  To be recognized for your deeds was held in very high esteem.  It was a good thing not just to be honored, but to love being honored.

Then Jesus comes along, and again, as an historian, not as a believer, John Dickson demonstrates that the teachings and even more so, the example of Jesus brought a humility revolution.

But don’t you deserve recognition for your deeds?  Philotemia wasn’t just a Greek or Roman attitude.  It’s very much a part of all of us, and was a big part of Jewish faith as it was practiced in Jesus’ time.  

As we continue in the Sermon on the Mount, let me remind you of a few things: this message is Jesus telling us how to live the good life.  Jesus’ desire for us is to enjoy life, filled with God’s presence, even in the midst of a world that is often hostile to God and His kingdom values.  But one of the biggest barriers to enjoying this God-filled life is bad religion.        

You can see that in what Jesus says in the opening blessings, that part we’ve often called the beatitudes.  There Jesus says that the presence of God is far more accessible than what they’d been told by the religious leaders of the time.

And those same religious leaders had laid down a truly terrible example of living out faith that Jesus corrects here, in the passage we look at now.  He’s going to lay down a general principle that corrects that and then will apply that in three dimensions.

The general principle is this: deeds done in earthly view gets earthly reward; deeds done in heavenly view gets heaven’s reward.  

Jesus applies this in three areas that were considered—and really are—key measurements of the genuineness of a person’s faith and devotion.  Those areas are meeting the needs of the poor, prayer and fasting.

Here’s the general principle given by Jesus in Matthew 6:1:

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

The rabbis considered almsgiving, prayer, and fasting as the three chief acts of Jewish piety.  So Jesus deals with each of these three.  He first warns His disciples not to do these for man’s praise.  Then He assures them that if they disregard His warning they would get human praise but no more.  Third, He teaches them how to do the act for God alone, secretly (not for public applause). Finally, He assures them that the Father who sees in secret would reward their righteous act openly.  That’s the pattern that is repeated three times here. 

Example One: Giving to the Needy (Matthew 6:2-4)

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Here we see the pattern.  Some people when they give want the world to know.  They blow their own horn, so to speak.  Now some have taken this more literally—that actual horns (shofarim) were blown to announce certain offerings, or the fact that the collection receptacles for offerings at the temple were shaped like horns and that if you put a lot of coins in them, well, that would be noisy and attract a lot of attention.  Whatever it is, it isn’t really important for us here.  The point is, don’t make a big deal about your giving.  Keep it private.  Don’t do it to be noticed.  If you do, you get earthly reward now (in the form of attention and esteem), but you forgo heavenly attention forever (which we’ll pick up in the next section). 

One fundamental fact about God is His omniscience.  He knows everything.  He knows about the giving you do, and He is pleased by it.  And that’s enough.  It’s enough that He knows.  He’s the one we’re trying to impress! 

One church I was serving needed new pulpit Bibles.  Lynann’s dad had recently passed away, and we decided to use some inheritance money to meet that need.  In the Bibles, we placed stickers that said, “Given in loving memory of Rev. Earl and Mrs. Delphine Dale.”  But we intentionally didn’t say who gave them.  We wanted it that way.  Better recognition in heaven than on earth. 

I have no trouble about memorials with names on them, and so forth, but we need to be careful, for our own sake, about not seeking recognition for our giving.  I’d rather be unknown now, and a star on the walk of fame in heaven before the Father.
Here’s the second example: prayer.

Example Two: Prayer (Matthew 6:5-14)

Now this is a very familiar passage, because it includes the Lord’s Prayer.  We could spend weeks here, but let’s keep to the main theme of deeds done in earthly view gets earthly reward; deeds done in heavenly view gets heaven’s reward.   And let’s see how that pertains to prayer.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Let’s stop there before we get into the Lord’s Prayer and see the pattern repeated.  He’s not saying never to pray in public—sometimes that’s necessary in a worship service or before a meal.  He is saying, don’t make a show of your prayers, so people will say, hey that guy is really spiritual—you can tell by his really impressive prayers!  If you pray so people will be impressed by how you pray, stop it!  I’d rather overhear a humble man pray from his heart than a proud man pray the most impressive, theologically correct prayer any day!  And that, I think, is God’s attitude too.

So, prayer is primarily something you do, just you and God, where you get no earthly recognition, but you do get the Father’s ear and the Father’s reward.  And Jesus adds a further dimension: don’t babble like the pagans.  Again, the idea is, don’t pray in some ostentatious, showy way, whether you’re trying to impress a human audience or a divine audience.  Instead, come before the Father in loving simplicity.

So next He gives what we’ve come to call the Lord’s Pray.  Now I love the Lord’s Prayer, and I’ve often taught on it—there’s no better way to pray.  But let’s think about it today in context of what Jesus says before it, and what it means here in the flow of the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is giving the Lord’s Prayer as a model of the better way to pray, the alternative to showy, earth-audience praying of the bad religious leaders of the time.  What is that better way?  Well, first, let’s hear it, Matthew 6:9-15:

“This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 Forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Let me just give a few characteristics of the Lord’s Prayer that makes it Jesus’ antidote to the religious praying of the time:

1.    It is God-centered
2.    It is Kingdom of God centered
3.    It is simple
4.    It is practical
5.    It is deeply relational

Now think of these elements of the Lord’s Pray and compare them to the religious pray of the time.  God centered?  The Pharisee in Luke 18 prays, and his prayer is all about what a great guy he is.  Religious prayer is not only me-centered, it’s also tradition-centered, not centered around the kingdom of God.  Religious prayer is complex, uses big words, and is as far from everyday life and we can make it.  And religious prayer is more like a bank transaction than a relationship.

For Jesus, prayer is all about a relationship with a God who invites us to call Him Father.  It’s also relational in that He reminds us not to think we can pray well when we have unforgiveness toward others.  Forgiving others is the only part of the prayer that Jesus felt the need to add a few words of explanation.  That’s how important it is. 

Jesus is saying—listen, you’ve heard is said that giving to the poor and prayer is important—it is!  But let’s make sure that all your giving is real, that it’s not for show, so do it in a way that draws no attention to yourself.  God sees, and that’s all that matters.  And when you pray, do it in a way in which you get no special attention from other people; after all, what matters is what God sees.  So when you pray, center your prayers on God and His kingdom priorities, and come to Him as your Father in heaven and with a heart that is as right with other people as you can.

You see, Jesus is actually simplifying the practice of faith here, liberating it from excessive cumbersome rules and making it more accessible to people.  The good life isn’t achieved by all those rules and regs, but by knowing the God wants to have a living, dynamic, liberating relationship with you. 

So now we come to the last area that Jesus wants to reform for our good, and that’s fasting.

Example Three: Fasting (Matthew 6:16-18)

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

In the Old Testament, fasting was commanded for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), but was practiced on all kinds of occasions.  The basic idea of fasting is this: to heighten the sense for yearning after God through the sense of hunger we feel for food. 

The early church continued the practice of fasting (see Acts 13:1-3; 14:23).  Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “If you fast”; He says “When you fast.”  Jesus doesn’t regard fasting as some legalistic thing, or only an Old Covenant, Mosaic Law thing; He sees it as a good and valid thing.

But again, it was subject to abuse.  Some people, when the fasted, could be seen from a mile away.  They wouldn’t wash their face and they wore old clothes, and they sent out a message something like this: I look miserable because I feel miserable, but I only look and feel this way because I am so way more holy than you are!

But the same general truth applies here: deeds done in earthly view gets earthly reward; deeds done in heavenly view gets heaven’s reward.   Therefore, “put oil on your head and wash your face.”  (People used a little olive oil as hair treatment in those days.)  In other words, don’t give away the fact that you’re fasting by either the way you dress or by your personal hygiene. 

John Wesley encouraged his disciples to fast twice a week, which was the same frequency as the Pharisees.  Fasting isn’t some Old Testament thing, or a Catholic thing, or a legalistic thing; it’s a Bible thing.  In some traditions, there’s the additional idea that you should take what you would have spent for food and give it for the poor, which isn’t a bad idea, and consistent with some of the things said about fasting in the Old Testament.

Once I led a group of men who had a prayer burden for other men to be on fire for God and to take up the full load of responsibility as husbands and dads.  For three consecutive Thursdays, we fasted—first one meal, then two, and then a full day’s fast.  That was one of the most transformative experiences we had as a group of men. 

John Calvin said that there are three keys to spiritual growth: humility, humility and humility!  But how do you get there?  One of the greatest insights to spiritual growth is that we can train our inner self through what we do with our outer self.  Here, Jesus endorses and reforms three practices, that, practiced well, have the power to change who we are into more fully formed followers of Jesus. 

So, what is your practice when it comes to giving?  In particular—since that what Jesus is talking about here—what’s your default setting to giving to the poor?  We all know there are times to exercise good judgment when it comes to the needs of the poor, but what’s your default setting?  For myself, I think of the Good Samaritan story and I am convinced that the default setting needs to be—when I encounter someone in need, that person’s my neighbor, and Jesus told me to love my neighbor and seek to meet their need in some tangible way.

I have the practice—and I did this with my kids when they were little—that during the Christmas season, whenever we encountered a Salvation Army kettle, to put in a dollar.  Not just dime, but real money.  This is something I do as a spiritual discipline, to remind me about people in need, to keep my heart tender.

And what is your practice when it comes to pray?  Do you have time, every day, with God?  Is that a priority?  Donald Carson says something very wise here: “The public versus private antithesis is a good test of one’s motives; the person who prays more in public than in private reveals that he is less interested in God’s approval than in human praise.”  Are you all ready to pray to open a Sunday school class, but not ready to pray on Monday morning, when the only audience is God?

And what about fasting?  The average evangelical comes up blank when it comes to fasting.  But let me tell you, when these things—especially prayer and fasting—become a firm part of your life, you get power in your life, and power that comes from God.
Chip Ingraham tells this story:

In Santa Cruz there's a strip called Pacific Avenue, and there are a number of bars. On a rowdy Saturday night there were three very burly guys in tight T-shirts—guys who looked like they pumped iron on  steroids.  You don’t want to mess with those guys. But they were drunk and a bar’s bouncer couldn’t control them, so they called the police.

So a police cruiser pulls up, and out steps a female office who looked to be 4'11". 

Guess what happened?  She walked up to the rowdy giants and asked, "Gentlemen, do we have a problem here?"

"No, we're good here. Get outta here."

"Excuse me.  I'm authorized by Santa Cruz County to enforce the law. I'd like both of you to know that—now get over against the car!  Do you understand?" And they both started to balk a little bit, and she put her hand on her revolver.

And you know what? I've never seen two big, strong drunk guys get sober so fast.  And pretty this little gal had those guys doing exactly what she wanted. 
You know why? She has a badge that says "I have all right and authority vested in me to exercise that. You must do what I say. And if there's any problem with that, I have some power on my leg that can enforce it."

Let me tell you: you bring these surprising deeds into your life, they bring with them power.  You are a child of the King of kings. Your badge is your position in Christ.  Your sidearm is the word and the promises of God.  And we get the bullets for that weapon in the time we spend alone with God.  That is where the power comes from.  And you don't have to be strong-willed or spiritual or go to seminary or know a whole lot.   Draw near to God, and know Him, and know His strength.  This is the good life.


Part Five: Surprising Supply (Matthew 6:19-34)

I make no secret of my fondness for Maui.  It’s a place that seems like the millennium has already started.  The weather is perfect almost every day.  The people are friendly.  The beach beckons.

I’m not the only person who thinks so.  Maui is thick with celebrities who either have second homes there, or have even moved there full time.  Oprah has a 60 acre estate near Hana.  Willie Nelson lives on the north shore.  Kris Kristofferson, Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson live as much of the year as they can on the island.  Clint Eastwood and Tom Selleck have estates there.  And rocker Sammy Hagar, who’s better known for his home in Cabo San Lucas, also has a place on the valley isle.

Why are they there?  Well, they’re there because they has a gazillion bucks and can afford it, and because in this island paradise, they get a chance, in their mind, to enjoy the good life.  

So what do you need to enjoy the good life?  Well, a view of the Pacific from you Maui estate is nice, but just about everybody would say that a full bank account, a full fridge and a closet full of nice clothes is just about essential to the good life.

One theory that is well, inflicted on college students is the Hierarchy of Needs from Abraham Maslow.  As he first formulated his theory back in 1954, there are five levels of need that people have:

1. Biological needs - food, drink, shelter, etc.
2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, etc.
3. Belongingness needs - family, affection, etc.
4. Esteem needs - self-esteem, prestige, etc.
5. Self-actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, etc.

Notice that food, shelter and clothing comes first! 

But one of the criticisms of Maslow is this—how do we account for people—the “saints and martyrs”—who are denied the needs of the body, denied safety, denied tangible belonging—who have great peace of mind, a strong sense of satisfaction and have all the  appearance of profound fulfillment?

Way back, the Greek philosophers struggled with the question of the good life and how to get it.  Aristotle spoke of a concept called eudaimonia: “good spirits.”  It means living well, living virtuously, living happily--thriving.  It stresses moderation and balance.

What makes the Biblical concept of the good life so different from the idea of the good life of the philosophers is that the Biblical concept is God-centered.  It’s shalom: life at peace and at peace because the reality of God has come to the center of life.

A few weeks ago, I said that one way to view the Sermon on the Mount is that it is Jesus’ way of describing the good life.   His approach to the good life is to recognize the world as it is: a world that is broken, incomplete, and sometimes even hostile to the people of God.     

So even in the opening blessings, the Beatitudes, we have reference to hunger and thirst and mourning and poverty, and the good news of Jesus is that the kingdom of God is available to us even in the midst of these things.

So also is righteousness available to us, and so also is transformation of heart, which so much more important that our mere external deeds. 

Jesus consistently digs down to the real person, the heart, and how that stands open before God.  Let even your good deeds be known only to God; deeds known to people may get your praise, but deeds known to God get heaven’s reward.

In a sense, in this passage Jesus expands on that business of heaven’s reward but He takes it and expands it into a wonderful teaching about the good life and God, and how He rewards. 

So I want to look at Matthew 6:19-34 under three headings: treasure, trust and trajectory.  What is the real treasure and how does that work?  Trust: the good life has at its center a trust relationship with God.  Trajectory: what is your life all about?

Treasure (Matthew 6:19-24)

Treasure--here or in heaven? (19-20)

Here’s a good life question: what about money, wealth and possessions?  Look at verse 19-20:

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.

In ancient times, you often stored accumulated wealth in the form of precious metals (silver and gold) and in the form of luxurious clothing which you would lock aware in a secure location.  The problem with that is that no secure location is completely secure.  Clothing could decay into worthless rags.  Thieves can break in and steal precious metals.  You can also lose money the old fashioned way: bad investments, foolish spending and loss of new income. 

But be careful to note that Jesus isn’t saying that poverty is the road to happiness!  My dad used to say that, “Money can’t buy happiness, but poverty will break your heart every time.”  Jesus isn’t anti-wealth: He just wants us to make sure we handle it carefully, and that we spend our lives relocating our wealth.  Don’t store up treasures on earth.   Do store up treasures in heaven. 

This is consistent with that pattern from the first half of this chapter where Jesus tells us that deeds done in earth’s view gets earthly reward, and that deeds done in heaven’s view gets heaven’s reward…deeds like giving to the poor, prayer and fasting. 

But here it seems that Jesus is broadening that out to the overall stewardship we have over the resources God has given to us.  The way that we store up treasure in heaven is to make those resources available to the work of God.  That starts with giving, but it doesn’t stop there.  If you have empty house or an unused car and a missionary family has need of a place to stay or a vehicle to drive when on home assignment, and you make that place available, that transfers some earthly wealth to heaven.  We’re talking about total life stewardship here, and what Jesus urges us to realize that money and other resources used for the kingdom of God is never lost; it is transformed into eternal blessings for others and for us and that God sees that transfer and is pleased by it.  

What do you focus on? (21-23)

Jesus reinforces that concept in the mini-parable of the eye as the lamp of the body, vs. 21-23:

21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.22 The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

What are you gazing on?  What has your attention?  What has—as they say, “caught your eye”? 

Whatever we esteem as most valued is where our heart—our emotions, our attention—is invested.  And that is nearly always where we have actual money invested.  That’s not superficial.  After all, for most of us, money came to us through our own hard work, and our time, and the best application of our abilities.  It’s like we turn sweat into money.  Money is where we store our labor.  When you take that and store it somewhere else, it’s more than dollars and cents: it’s your life on the line.

So if your hare-brained brother-in-law wants you to invest in alpaca farms, you’re going to think twice.  That’s not because you’re a shallow materialist; it’s because that’s your sweat and brains on the line.

Jesus says, be careful of what catches your heart and your eye.  Make sure it’s worthy.  It can bless you, or it can poison you.  Then He goes a step further.  

It’s money or God (24)

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

The NIV uses the word Money (capitalized).  In Greek, it’s Mammon.  It’s a name.  It’s the Aramaic word, brought over into Greek for wealth, here personified, so that Jesus is really sticking it to us: your master will either be God or this false God of possessions.  And it’s A or B and you don’t get to pick both—you can’t do it.  The Money God will let you down, I promise you.  So choose wisely.

That’s treasure.  Next comes trust.

Trust (Matthew 6:25-32)

Next comes one of the great highpoints in the teaching of Jesus.  There is something truly poetic and soaring about the next verses.  But in the poetry, Jesus is saying—since the good life means holding earthly treasure loosely, and turning it into heavenly treasure through giving and service, no doubt you’re wondering how you’re going to make ends meet.  Well, I want you to trust Me on this.  Let go of your need to control, your impulse to worry and your compulsion to have it all planned out.  Here we go, vs. 25-32: 

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.

It’s amazing.  Stop worrying about “little things” like food, shelter and clothing. 

One of my wife’s favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life.  When the angel Clarence comes to help George Bailey, they have this conversation:

George Bailey: I know one way you can help me. You don't happen to have 8,000 bucks on you?
Clarence: No, we don't use money in Heaven.
George Bailey: Well, it comes in real handy down here, bud!     

Jesus never once suggests that these things are unimportant—it’s just that they can’t take over our hearts.  And further, He promises that the heavenly Father—the one who knows you and loves you—will take care of you, even as He feeds the birds and clothes the fields.  How much more shall we, His children, be supplied?

Before we move on, we should make this note: Jesus is telling us to disregard worry, but He is not telling us to disregard work.  This is not an invitation to kick back, be lazy and say, “God will provide.” 

There is so much positive said about the value of work, and the vice of laziness in the word of God.  Jesus is not encouraging us to just kick back and do nothing. 

Exodus 20:9 reminds us, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work…”  Proverbs 19:15 says, “Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man goes hungry.”  In 1 Thessalonians 5:10, Paul writes, ”For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’”

Maybe an illustration of this is here.  You may know the name John Ratzenberger.  He played Cliff Claven on Cheers and has done a lot of voice work in movies like Toy Story since then.  He loves to tell the story of how he was at Woodstock.   He wasn’t there for the music—he was a carpenter there:

I was at Woodstock—I built the stage. And when everything fell apart, and people were fighting for peanut-butter sandwiches, it was the National Guard who came in and saved the same people who were protesting them.  So when (they) wanted to build a Woodstock memorial, I said it should be a statue of a National Guardsman feeding a crying hippie.

Let’s move on! 

So, Jesus says, be careful with treasure.  Move it from earth to heaven as rapidly as possible!  Don’t worry, you can trust that the Father will see to your needs.  And finally, this is all part of the trajectory of your life, which we read about in vs. 33-34:
Trajectory (6:33-34)

33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

A question that Tom Bandy poses to leaders in his church in Toronto is, “With my first breath and last penny, will it be ‘me first’ or ‘God’s mission’?”

You want the good life?  It won’t be had through being a part-time Jesus follower.  Putting God’s kingdom first isn’t some terrible burden to bear that takes the joy out of life: it’s the road to life at its best.

Running all though this passage is the theme of anxiety versus trusting in God.  We have anxiety over our treasure.  We have anxiety over our health.  We have anxiety over our status.  We have anxiety over our creature comforts.  Jesus tells us that we can set anxiety aside and instead, instead of those things consuming us, have this one thing consume us: God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness.  And the promise of God is this: do this, and “all these things will be given to you as well.”  What things?  Food, shelter, clothing, all that stuff, the treasure and the security it provides—that’s “all these things.”

I want to know—what does “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” mean in tangible terms? 

Some translations of Matthew 6:33 says that when we put the kingdom first, all we need will be “added” to us.  I want to use the word ADD to flesh out what seeking the kingdom first means in tangible terms:

A: availability
D: devotion
D: delight

Availability

When Paul Revere had his midnight ride to warn that the British were coming, he could ride knowing that the Minutemen would be available.  On a moment’s notice, they would drop everything.  Why?  They saw their new nation as their highest earthly priority. 
When there is a kingdom need, are you available?  Really, please don’t tell me that you’re seeking first the kingdom if you start making excuses. 

Our attitude should be like that of Col. Paddy Flint.  He was an eccentric but brilliant commander during the North Africa campaign in the Second World War.  On the side of jeep and on the side of his helmet, he had these letters painted: AAA-0.  That stood for “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Bar Nothing!”  AAA-0!  That’s available!

Are you available?  As Richard Foster said: if you’re not seeking the kingdom first, really, you aren’t seeking it at all.

Devotion

Notice Jesus says, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.”  When we seek God, it’s not just our outward deeds that are affected.  Sure, it’s seen in deeds, but as usual Jesus penetrates to the heart and says, “Want the good life?  It’s also found as you go hard after God.”  It’s a lot like the fourth beatitude (Matthew 5:6):  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  We’re talking about a passion for God Himself, as in Psalm 42:1:  As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.”  When you want God as much as a dehydrated deer wants water, then you’re on to something!

So, we have availability, devotion and now we add…

Delight

The Sermon on the Mount is kind of like the giving of the law on Mount Sinai.  A new era opened on top of a mountain.  But one way that the Sermon on the Mount is completely unlike the law is the element of joy that pervades the sermon.  Jesus is not laying down a bunch of hard to achieve rules on His followers: He’s pointing at an open door and urging us to go through. 

Isn’t it a delight to know that there is a God who makes a treasure known to us that will last forever?  That He will see to our creature needs—food, shelter and clothing? 
We don’t have to live in worry and fear; God really will take care of us.  Here is where you can find the good life: when you trust the Heavenly Father.  You can’t separate or divide the Good Life from the Good Lord.

Let me illustrate it this way.  Think of an old movie western.  Near the end, the good guy and the bad guy stand facing each other at opposite ends of the only street in town.  The local folks, knowing what will happen, clear the street.  They slam doors and shutter windows.  The general store hangs up a "closed" sign.  Only two men remain outside.  The wind blows a cloud of dust from the street.  A dog barks in the distance.  With another gust of wind a tumbleweed tumbles between them.

Where do tumbleweeds come from?  Do they germinate on the tumble, grow on the tumble, and die on the tumble?  No; in the spring, they grow as thick, green bushes.  When the spring rains stop, their roots cannot find enough water to sustain them. They wither and fall over.  Eventually, their shallow roots are no longer able to keep them anchored to the ground.  They literally dry up and blow away.

Mesquite trees, which can grow in the same area, are just the opposite.  Even after a prolonged drought, if you cut one down, it grows back.  If you cut down what grows back, it will grow back again.  You could dig down five or ten feet below ground, cut it down, and burn the stump.  You would soon have a mesquite grove as dozens (if not hundreds!) of severed roots sprout.  A significant difference between tumbleweeds and mesquite trees is in the roots.

The life without God, or God on the edge, or knowing Christ but not making Him central, is rootless.  You’ll end up as a tumbleweed.  Jesus is inviting to mesquite living, trusting in, attached deeply the source of life and joy and purpose.  Put it that way, it seems simple—an easy choice.  So seek His kingdom and His righteousness first, and all this other stuff—He’ll see you get what you need, He will!  That’s the Good Life.


Part Six: Surprising Living (Matthew 7:1-12)

The Sermon on the Mount is full of surprises.  The opening announces that the kingdom of God, the blessings of God, is wide open to the very people who thought they’d been left out in the cold.  From there, Jesus surprises us by telling us that the very nature of righteousness is different from what we’d thought; it isn’t what the religious leaders said (external acts); it’s being salt and light; Jesus insists that true faith always goes to the heart; it’s not what is spray painted on the outside.

And in last section, we saw the surprising supply of God, as Jesus honed in on our relationship to treasure, trust and trajectory. 

In all this, Jesus is laying out a life-plan for us all.  Do this, Jesus says, and you will experience life at its best.

The persistent notion that following the way of the Lord is the hard way is hard to shake.  The reason it’s hard to shake is that we tend to think in such short-sighted terms.  By that, I don’t just mean one day in eternity, it will all be worth it.  I mean here and now, we think in short-sighted ways. 

Do you think Jesus was only talking about heaven when He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”?  (John 10:10b) 

I remember once when our kids were little that one of the toys we got our son Colin needed batteries.  I had a nice stash of batteries and must have spent half an hour trying to cram what I thought was the right size battery into the toy when I finally realized it was the wrong one.  We are designed to have the God battery fit into us to make us “run right” and we also spend our lives, many of us, trying to cram a D battery into a C battery slot (and we wonder what’s wrong).

So, this gets back to what I called the “good life” part of the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is saying here, this is the best way to live life.  Be salt.  Be light.  Let the ways of God penetrate to your heart; outward faith only just makes your life more burdensome.  Don't worry, don’t allow Money to be your god; money will always let you down, instead seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first.

That brings us to chapter seven, and this week we’ll cover the first 12 verses, and the theme that holds these verses together is relationships.  There are a lot of different relationships that Jesus could have addressed here, but the ones He does are three relationships each and every follower of Jesus will engage in:
·          
     Your relationships with other believers
·         Your relationships with your spiritual adversaries
·         Your relationship with your Heavenly Father

Why these three?  Why doesn’t Jesus address marriage or children?  Well, I suppose because while most of us will be married, and most of us will have children, not all of us will.  But every believer will have a relationship with other believers (unless you’re a determined hermit).  Every believer will have a relationship with spiritual adversaries (unless you’re a determined monk).  And every believer, without exception has a relationship with the Heavenly Father—no exceptions to that at all.

And in these three relationships, we find a call to be tender, tough and trusting.  And then Jesus lays down a timeless rule that ties it all together.

Tender Relationships: v. 1-5: with your spiritual family

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite [play-actor, faker], first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Three times in this short passage Jesus calls the other person your brother.  He’s talking about how you relate to other people with whom you share your faith.  In a word, He says, walk tenderly.  Don’t be harsh.  You’ve got problems too.

There’s a rule of thumb that’s I’ve found to be true: when we observe our vices in another person, we find that person and their vices most irritating.  That person becomes a mirror to us, and we don’t like what we see!  “That person, they’re so rude, they’re so proud, they’re so full of themselves…”  Be careful; you may be listing your own vices.   

Now, I wish that was enough to say, but I’m afraid that this is one of the most misused and abused passages in the Bible, so we have to take a time out to address that.  For example, some years ago in Oklahoma, a woman was disfellowshipped for living with a man she wasn’t married to.  Being a good American, she sued the church.  Her rallying cry was, “Do not judge, let ye be judged.” 

I read somewhere that this is one of the most quoted passages from Scripture, and the reason it is, is because people use it as an excuse for bad behavior. At a Christian college, a student was placed on probation for getting a DUI, despite the fact that he’d signed an agreement in which he pledged not to drink, and the agreement clearly stated what would happen if he did. He protested his suspension based on Matthew 7:1.   Was he right?
“Do not judge” does not mean that we are called to not exercise discernment.  It does not mean that we cannot correct bad behavior.  It does not mean that we can’t challenge bad motives or outcomes.

It does mean that we when we do evaluate, we do so with affirmation in mind.  It does mean that evaluation should be done in humility and gentleness. 

As a matter of fact, this passage is a sober reminder to us that, one way or another, our sins will find us out.  Jesus warns us about taking the role of the hypocrite in v. 5.  A hypocrite is not someone criticizing someone else: a hypocrite is a faker, and actor (that’s what the Greek word actually means). 

(If you want to go further on this topic, see these passages which deal with evaluation versus judgment: Matthew 6:14-15, 7:15-16; Luke 6:37, 42; Romans 2:1-11; 14:1-23; 1 Corinthians 14:29; Galatians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; James 4:11-12; 1 John 4:1-6).

Be tender, people.  I have a rule that I keep for myself, and that you might find helpful.  Ever have someone say something to you, and you’re really not sure if they mean it as an insult or as a compliment?  You can’t really tell if they’re being sarcastic or not?  My rule is, when you’re not sure, take it well.  Take it as a compliment, or at least not as an insult.  I’m sure that a few people have thought me a fool for that, but I’d rather be thought of as a fool that as a hothead.

Tough Relationships v. 6: with your spiritual adversaries

The second relationship that Jesus addresses here is your spiritual adversaries.  Jesus assumes that those who are spiritually faithful to Him will rub someone else the wrong way.  Jesus does not buy the line that all religions teach the same thing.  He doesn’t drive around in a car with one of those cheesy “coexist” bumper stickers.  Remember what I’ve been saying: in the Sermon on the Mount, he’s talking about real life, as it is; He’s not describing some utopian dream.  In the real world, when you put forth God’s truth, when you play on God’s team, expect opposition.  When Jesus did it, they handed Him a cross to carry.  So what does He advise?  Matthew 7:6

 Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.

Now wait a minute: aren’t we suppose to bear witness, even to people who are out to get us?  Honestly, I’m concerned as I go over this passage that someone may take it as an excuse not to bear witness. 

Just as we are called to use wisdom in our relationship with fellow believers, we’re called to use wisdom in our spiritual adversaries.  The best illustration of this is what Jesus Himself did.  Jesus preached the good news far and wide, but when He was hauled before the Sanhedrin and Herod and Pilate, He had very little to say.  They were hardened.  They were like ravenous dogs and stomping pigs. 

The reality is that you don’t know who the “dogs” and “pigs” are at first!  When we have an opportunity to bear witness, do it!  But there are times to stop throwing pearls of gospel truth to swine. 

Jesus even instructed His disciples that there are times to “shake the dust off your feet” and leave a place where people are rejecting the message (see Matthew 10:14). 

Many years after the ministry of Jesus, the apostle Peter seems to have these words in mind in what he writes in 2 Peter 2:22:

Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.”

The interesting thing is that in context, Peter is talking about false religious teachers, who have distorted the message of Jesus for their own ends. 

Just as with the Sanhedrin, these are people who know what the message is, and who, despite that knowledge, distort it, oppose it and persecute it.  And what Jesus says to do under those circumstances is, hang tough, trust God, be faithful, and give your adversary no ground of accusation against you.  There are times the best witness we can give is by the words we don’t say.

So it’s a tender relationship with our spiritual family, a tough relationship with our spiritual adversaries, and finally a trusting relationship with our Spiritual Father.

Trusting Relationship 7-11: with your Spiritual Father

Look at Matthew 7:7-11:    

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

In these words, Jesus in a sense goes back to the sense of the Beatitudes.  Remember that the beatitudes aren’t commands to shape up; they are announcements that the door to the kingdom of God is wide open.  No matter what your status is—poor, hungry, thirsty, mourning, meek—the way is open.  And here He says, listen, this is what the Father wants: ask, He wants to give; seek; He wants to show you; knock; He wants to open the door. 
And He goes on to illustrate this with the behavior of earthly fathers.  Dad, can I have some bread?  Some fish sticks?  What dad would fool his son by handing him a rock in the place of bread, or a coiled snake in the place of a piece of fish?

God is not some hard-hearted crank who’s reluctant to give His blessings.  He is the loving heavenly Father who wants to give freely.

Jesus is just dittoing the teaching of the Old Testament.  I think of two passages.  The first is Deuteronomy 4:29:

But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.

And there is a sense of intensity in the passage here in Matthew in that the keys verbs are present imperative, so you could translate it as, “Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking.”

The other passage that comes to mind is Jeremiah 29:13:

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.

I agree with NT scholar D.A. Carson, who says this about this passage:

What is fundamentally at stake is man’s picture of God.  God must not be thought of as a reluctant stranger who can be cajoled or bullied into bestowing his gifts, as a malicious tyrant who takes vicious glee in the tricks he plays, or even as an indulgent grandfather who provides everything requested of him.  He is the heavenly Father, the God of the kingdom, who graciously and willingly bestows the good gifts of the kingdom in answer to prayer.

So we have tender relationship with believers, a tough one with adversaries and a trusting one with the Father.  We have just one more verse to look at today, and it’s a gem, Matthew 7:12:

Summary on Relationships 12: the Golden Rule

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Now you probably know that this has been widely called the Golden Rule.  In his wonderful little book, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis includes an appendix showing that the golden rule has its equivalent in every world religion.  But what is unique about Jesus’ formulation of the rule is that Jesus states it positively.  For example, about fifty years before the ministry of Jesus, a Jewish scholar called Hillel the Elder wrote, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”  In other words, don’t do to other people what you don’t want done to you.  (Hillel’s saying has even been called the Silver Rule—you know, not quite golden!)

But Jesus says, take this forward looking stance in your relationships: do the good to them that you would wish someone would do for you. 

I grew up in a town where the main, downtown department store was a J.C. Penney’s. I imagine that everyone here has shopped at a Penney’s at some time or other.  Did you know that it used to be known as “The Golden Rule Store”?  In fact, when Mr. Penney first started, his first several stores were called that.

J.C. Penney did not like to use the word “employee.” He called those that worked for him, “Associates.”  He treated them just as well as he would like to be treated, too.  He was able to take a general store in 1902, and build it into a multi-billion dollar business, because he actually lived and operated by the Golden Rule.

J.C. Penny tried his best to always treat people like he wanted to be treated. He treated them with love, respect, kindness, understanding and encouragement.  The Golden Rule, and everything Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount, is not only good, it also works. 

Joel Manby is the CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment.  They run amusements parks like Dollywood and Silver Dollar City…a total of about 20 places across the country.  Hugo Herschend started the company on explicitly Christian principles.  That was in 1961.  When Hugo’s sons retired in the late 90s, they recruited Joel because of abilities and because he believed that the faith principles of the business were the way to go.  A few years ago, Joel appeared on the TV show Undercover Boss, and wrote a book based on the leadership principles of the company.  The title of his book is Love Works.  Know why?  Love really does work.  Jesus is giving us the way to live, and it really works. 

Let me ask you a question: take the three relational areas we’ve been talking about today.  Are you stuck, boggled down, or troubled in any of these?  Do you have an unresolved relational issue with a fellow believer?  Do you have some conflict with a non-believer?  Are you struggling to believe that God is the way I’ve described Him today, the way Jesus describes Him—as wanting to bless and provide and lead and answer and open the door for you?

If you are, can you believe God, and walk in the ways that Jesus outlines for us here?  You know you can’t do it on your own, don’t you?  This is supernatural.  You can only live this way as empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Trust the Lord, and He will enable to live this way.  It’s the best way, I promise.


Surprising Wisdom (Matthew 7:13-29)


I love Indiana Jones movies.  In “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, there’s a great scene.  In case you haven't seen the movie in a while, there's this bad guy, and he follows Indy (Harrison Ford) into a hidden room full of ancient goblets.  Inside the room are many gorgeous, solid gold, gem-encrusted chalices that are fit for a king.  The story goes that whoever drinks from the cup of Christ (the Holy Grail) will supposedly have immortality.  Whoever chooses the wrong cup will suffer immediate death.  But which one is it?  The bad guy chooses the most beautiful of all the goblets, thinking it surely must be the one.  He drinks deeply.  It's obvious that his choice is a bad one because moments later the flesh melts from his skeleton and then his head implodes.  (This is all very cool.)  It's at this point that the ancient knight protecting the Holy Grail delivers his classic line, "He chose poorly." (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ubw5N8iVDHI)

Choosing well.  That’s the essence of wisdom.

And now we come to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, this message of many surprises.  We have seen…

·         Surprising Blessings (Matthew 5:1-12).  That’s those wonderful beatitudes, which invite people to come to the God who welcomes the unlikely.
·         Surprising Righteousness (Matthew 5:13-20).  Where we found out that real righteousness is being salt and light, which far outshines the so-called righteousness of the Pharisees.
·         Surprising Contrasts (Matthew 5:21-48).  Where we saw how Jesus goes to the heart, and that He truly and deeply changes lives. 
·         Surprising Deeds (Matthew 6:1-18).  This is where Jesus clarifies how to give, pray and fast, not to be seen on earth, but to be seen by heaven.
·         Surprising Supply (Matthew 6:19-34).  And then He speaks to us about how God will see that we get what we truly need—our treasure, trust and trajectory of life.
·         Surprising Living (Matthew 7:1-12) Last week, we saw Jesus address three key relationships—with fellow-believers, adversaries and with the Lord Himself.
·         Surprising Wisdom (Matthew 7:13-27).  That’s today.  And now the question is ours:  

Will we choose poorly, or wisely?

There is nothing conventional or predictable about Jesus and His teaching.  We often misunderstand Him because we think we have Him figured out.  But if He is who the New Testament says He is, that is God in the flesh, would we find it so amazing that there are times when God confounds us?  As someone who has studied the Gospels for forty years, I can tell you that there are many things there that I understand better than I used to, but there are times that Jesus totally astounds me.  There are times when I just don’t see how it all fits together, how flap A fits into slot B, and it just proves to me that I’m just a pretty small human being and He’s so beyond me.

That was much the same reaction of the people who were there that day.  Look at Matthew 7:28-29:

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

While Jesus honored the Old Testament, He spoke with every word as authoritative as that of the written Scripture.  The crowds were amazed at His authority and His wisdom.
Now, wisdom has to do with choices.  Knowledge has to do with information; wisdom takes that information and makes choices.

Here at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasizes that all His hearers have a choice to make.  We have to exercise wisdom in that choice.  He presents that choice in stark terms: yes or no, A or B, right or left, with no middle ground.  We have decisions to make based on what we have heard from Jesus here in the Sermon.  Are you in, or out?  It’s time to decide.

Concluding Warnings (Matthew 7:13-23)

So here, at the end of the Sermon, Jesus gives a series of warnings, a series of inter-connected choices we must make:
·          
     Be careful what path you choose!
·         Be careful who you listen to!
·         Be careful how you see yourself!
·         Be careful how you build your life! 

First, be careful what path you choose…

First Warning: Enter the Narrow Gate, Walk the Narrow Road (13-14)

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. 

There is something sad in these words.  Don’t you wish that all was good with the world, and that most people would live the right way, love God and do good to others?  But Jesus says that most don’t.  The gate is narrow, and so it the road that leads to life—few find it.
It isn’t because the gate is hidden; it’s because we’re willfully blind.  There is something radically wrong with us.  By instinct, animals do what is for their benefit, but not us human beings.  There is something twisted in us.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that there are parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and the giving of the law to Moses.  Near the end of Moses’ life, he also told the people of Israel that they have to make a choice (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19):

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction…
19 This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.

And Jesus is setting the same choice before us, in different words.  Choose wisely.  Good choice—the Godward choice—is the life-ward choice.

Can you think of a better choice, a more important choice, than to heed the words of Jesus and to follow Him?  I can’t.  We can urge people to make good decisions about their money or their education or their relationships, and some choices are sure better than others, but no choice in life is more important than the choice to go through the narrow gate and walk on the narrow road.  It’s the good life choice, and it’s a choice that blesses your eternity as well as your life.

Further, after the decision to enter the narrow gate, there is no choice more important that the one to stay on the narrow road.  You choose, in the past, to follow Jesus, and that’s good; but what about today?  Are you daily taking up your cross and following Him?  Are you becoming more like Jesus in your character, and discovering more of the will of God for your life?  Are you engaged in God-honoring ministry?  Are you sharing your faith?  Folks, we don’t just go through a gate, we walk on the road.  That’s the road that leads to life.  Be careful what path you choose.   

Next, He says, “Be careful who you listen to.” 

Second Warning: Beware of False Prophets (15-20)

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Wolves in sheep’s clothing: that phrase was born here, in Jesus’ words.  Jesus does not buy the line that all faiths teach the same thing.  He affirms that what you believe is all important.  He boldly says that there are false prophets out there who really want to deceive you, but they will show themselves, eventually, by their “fruit.”  Fruit here means, “their natural output” in terms of both their character and their teaching.  All throughout the Bible we have the analogy of fruit, and in passages like John 15 and Galatians 5, fruit stands for Christ-like character, but here “fruit” seems to be broader than that—the total output of a person’s life.  Look at what they produce.  Good trees will produce good fruit; bad trees produce bad fruit. 

Let me give you a quick example of this.  When Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code burst on the scene in 2003, I had people tell me to my face that now that the secrets were out about Jesus that the whole Christian faith would be gone soon!  This despite the fact that everyone—I mean everyone who knows anything about the Bible and Church history slammed the book as sheer nonsense.  Even horror writer Stephen King called it the "intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.”  (Which I think is an insult to mac and cheese!)

What I found really interesting were the believers who came to me right after it was published asking sheepish questions along the lines of, “Uh, I hate to ask, but, uh, do we have anyway of disproving this stuff?”  They were always surprised—and a little relived—that there was so much ammunition against it. 

But consider the fruit of the Da Vinci code.  Even in the book, the so-called secrets were used to justify shocking immorality.  By their fruit you will know them!

So, be careful of the life path you chose and be careful who you listen to.  Next,
Be careful how you see yourself. 

Third Warning: Beware of Being a False Follower (21-23)

This may be the most telling warning we have here.  I don’t know about you, but my capacity for self-deception is almost boundless.  I can convince myself of almost anything.  It’s only by constant exposure to the word of God that the Spirit of God corrects me and shows me by foolishness. 

The single most dangerous form of self-deception is this one: that we are part of the people of God—that we are saved—when we’re not. 

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Two quick notes: the reference to prophecy in v. 22 links what’s said here to the reference to false prophets in v. 15.  Also, “that day” in v. 22 is a reference to the “last day,” the Day of Judgment, or the day of the Lord (“Yom-Yahweh” in Hebrew). 

What Jesus is addressing here is the possibility that there will be those who have convinced themselves that they are part of the redeemed when they are not.  Jesus even says that it is possible for to prophesy in the name of Jesus, even drive out demons and do miracles in His name, and He can still say of them, “I never knew you.”  How can this be?

It is possible to be in close association with the things of God and not know God.  Take Judas Iscariot, who was sent out with the other disciples to evangelize, and in the process we’re told that the kind of miracles Jesus talks about here happened.

More to the point for us is this: there are church people who don’t know God, but who think they do.  This, by the way, was a major theme in Puritan preaching.  A lot of preaching was directed to church members, urging them to examine themselves on whether they really know God, whether they really are saved.  I think sometimes we rush too fast to assure someone of their salvation when they are questioning it.  You can hang out in a garage, but that doesn’t make you a mechanic; you can hang out at church, but that doesn’t make you a real, transformed, born-again follower of Jesus.

Right now, some of you are questioning your own salvation, maybe for the first time in a long time.  Some of you are wrong.  You do know Jesus.  You are redeemed.  But some of you may be right to question your salvation. 

You know what I’ve found?  People understand the Good News a whole lot better once they’ve really understood what the bad news is.  The goodness of Jesus the Savior is so much clearer when you really wrap you head and heart around the idea that apart from God, all our so-called righteousness is like filthy rags.  I mean just pulled out of the septic tank filthy.  The bright light of God’s holiness is so bright that we can’t even glance in His direction.  In our nature, we are far, far, far from God.  When this reality really gets you, and you see yourself as so far from Him, and understand that you are sin-infested right down to your DNA, then, then, the Good News of a bleeding Savior on a cross becomes infinitely sweet and wonderful. And sometimes it is the lack of seeing how terrible sin is and how great God’s grace is that creates the church-going lost person. 

So, be careful how you see yourself. Beware of being a false follower.            

Fourth warning: Be careful how you build your life (24-29)

OK, this is the very end of the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s not like Jesus to finish without a flourish.  He’s referring to the whole message when He says this:

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

It’s a simple and memorable picture: a house on sand may be easy to build, but any good storm will knock it down.  A house on rock is harder to build, but it will stand.  So be careful how you build your life.  If you build them on Jesus’ words, your life and even your eternity will stand.  If you don’t, it won’t. 

One thing that’s striking here is the sheer audacity of Jesus.  Everything depends on how we respond to “these words of mine.” He could have said that it’s how we respond to the Scripture (there are similar warnings in Proverbs and in Isaiah[1]), but He is bold and says, “It’s all how you respond to Me.  It’s all in how you respond to My words.”  You want life, real life?  It’s all in how you respond to Me.  You want blessing?  It’s all in how you respond to Me.  You want to live forever with God?  It’s all in how you respond to Me. 

He’s not recommending His teaching as a good idea; He’s saying something far bolder and sweeping than anything any Old Testament prophet ever said.  Everything hinges on what you do with His words—even more so—what you do with Jesus Himself.   
I read it before, but look at v. 28-29 again:

Postscript: the Reaction of the Crowds (28-29)

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

I think that day was a great turning point in their lives.  Both the Man they encountered, and the teaching they heard, was unlike anything they’d ever heard before.

There’s an old hymn with great words:

I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene
And I wonder how He could love me,
A sinner condemned, unclean.

When you linger near the words of Jesus, He always surprises.  To tell you the truth, the words of Jesus always frighten me just a little.  I feel like I’m Doc Brown in Back to the Future holding the cable on the city hall clock tower as the lightening goes through!  So much power!

Michael Miller is a member of Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, California.  He writes:

“At the age of twenty-three, I was a drug addict. In 1982, for the fourth year in a row, my New Year's resolution was to get off drugs. That year my commitment to abstinence lasted less than two days. I had started experimenting with marijuana six years earlier, and I quickly went on to more potent, even life-threatening, drugs. I tried it all—LSD, hashish, pills, PCP and other drugs that fry the brain.

“For a long time I was blind to the mood-altering effect the drugs had on me. I went through many girlfriends, even having several at the same time. Still, I became paranoid when I suspected any of them of two-timing me. If I even thought that one of them was involved with another guy, I would fly into a jealous rage. I was becoming a monster.

“By the time I was twenty, I needed more and more money to support my drug habit. Somehow, I was able to land a job at a large bank. Even when I was high, I functioned well enough to hold on to my job, so I regularly got loaded on breaks and during lunch hour. But as I got to know the people I worked with, I noticed that without the need for drugs, they seemed so free, so peaceful, and so normal that I wanted to be like them. Yet I couldn't. Maybe it was too late.

“Then one day a friend invited me to a series of free rock concerts at some church. At the first two, I went out to the parking lot to get high during intermission and before I went home. At the third concert I was able to listen to a few of the songs and hear what the pastor said. Certain words stuck, but there was one sentence that pounded in my head: Jesus will change you from the inside out. That's what the pastor kept saying to us. Was that possible? Could I really change and actually become like my friends at work?
“Right at that moment, I felt the lightest touch of a gentle hand over my heart. I looked to my right and left and even turned around, but there was no one near me. Who had touched me?

“When the pastor invited people to stay after, I responded. As I followed the people who wanted to talk with me about God, I was very much on guard. But I quickly realized that there was nothing to fear. They were sincere, kind people who never asked me for money or tried to force anything down my throat or draw me into their church. They even told me to find a church that I was comfortable with and to read the Bible to find out about Jesus for myself. Then someone prayed with me. I was scared, but I knew that submitting my whole life to Jesus was the right thing to do.

“That's when the miracle happened. Right there, Jesus made Himself real to me and removed my drug addiction. That was the night I met God. I went home a new person, healed of a habit that had controlled every day of my life for six years. In answer to one heartfelt prayer, God just took it away.”

That’s Jesus.  No one else is like Him.  No one.



[1] See Proverbs 10:25; 14:11; Isaiah 28:16-17.